Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

Today we hear from one final 2015 Sami Rohr Prize final­ist: Mol­ly Antopol. Mol­ly’s debut col­lec­tion of sto­ries, The UnAmer­i­cans, received praise from around lit­er­ary (and Jew­ish) uni­verse, and even made it to the longlist for a 2014 Nation­al Book Award, so we were thrilled to wel­come her to the Sami Rohr lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty. We have lots about Mol­ly in JBCland, includ­ing her Vis­it­ing Scribe posts and her video chat for JBC Book Clubs (I even wrote about Mol­ly for anoth­er site, rec­om­mend­ing a wine for book clubs to enjoy while read­ing the book!), but we could­n’t resist the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share a lit­tle more about this high­ly tal­ent­ed author below. 

And, of course, a hearty con­grat­u­la­tions again to our oth­er four final­ists, who have been pro­filed over the past sev­er­al weeks: Ayelet Tsabari, Ken­neth Bon­ert, Yele­na Akhtiorskaya, and Boris Fish­man. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be tak­ing home $100,000.

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing fiction?

Hon­est­ly? Every­thing! I’ve heard some writ­ers talk about sto­ries arriv­ing ful­ly formed in their minds, and all they have to do is tran­scribe. That’s nev­er hap­pened for me. But I’m grate­ful for it — all of the sto­ries in my book took at least a year, some­times two, to write. Every one of them changed dras­ti­cal­ly draft by draft, and I often don’t dis­cov­er what a sto­ry is tru­ly about until the tenth or twelfth or fif­teenth version.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fiction?

Many of my rel­a­tives are incred­i­ble sto­ry­tellers and I start­ed think­ing about how best to tell a sto­ry when I was a kid. When it was my turn to talk at the din­ner table, I knew I’d bet­ter have some­thing inter­est­ing to say. A lot of my family’s sto­ries revolved around their involve­ment in the com­mu­nist par­ty. I heard so many tales of tapped lines and din­ner­time vis­its from the FBI, and many of the sto­ries in my book grew out of my desire to under­stand what it might have been like for my moth­er and her sib­lings to have grown up under such intense sur­veil­lance, know­ing that their most inti­mate moments were being record­ed and catalogued.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I like to pic­ture a bet­ter ver­sion of myself read­ing what­ev­er I write — a ver­sion that can’t be dis­mis­sive or judg­men­tal, a ver­sion that under­stands that in order to write the kind of fic­tion I strive to write, it’s nec­es­sary to feel empa­thy for even the least like­able” or sym­pa­thet­ic people.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m at work on a nov­el, called The After Par­ty. It’s set in Israel and the U.S. — but I’m too super­sti­tious to say any­thing else!

What are you read­ing now?

Louise Gluck’s gor­geous new poet­ry col­lec­tion, Faith­ful and Vir­tu­ous Night, and a col­lec­tion of linked sto­ries, Uncle Peretz Takes Off, by anoth­er of my favorite writ­ers, Ya’akov Shabtai.

Top 5 favorite books

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

It wasn’t a con­scious deci­sion, exact­ly. I’ve always read a lot. As a kid, I had all sorts of imag­i­nary friends and my mom says I used to spend full days writ­ing myself into what­ev­er book I was read­ing. But writ­ing as a career? It felt to me like a pie-in-the-sky pro­fes­sion, like being an astro­naut or a magi­cian. I fig­ured I’d sneak in time to write when I wasn’t work­ing — when I was a kid I want­ed to be a marine biol­o­gist or a zoologist. 

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

See­ing some­one on the sub­way read­ing my book!

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

I don’t have a spe­cial writ­ing hat or a lucky bathrobe or any­thing like that. If I can sit down and get some­thing done, it doesn’t mat­ter if I’m dressed or still in my paja­mas, or at my desk or on the couch. My only rule is to get start­ed in the morn­ing. I like to roll out of bed and just get to work, before my day gets too clut­tered and the emails begin to pile up. I treat writ­ing like a job, putting in full days on the days I don’t teach and half days on the days that I do. I shut the phone off, and late­ly I’ve been using a pro­gram that pre­vents me from access­ing the Inter­net. I’m hor­ri­bly addict­ed and research­ing one small (yet essen­tial!) detail for a sto­ry can often lead to a three-hour black hole from which I only emerge once I’ve learned every­thing I can about some­thing whol­ly unre­lat­ed to my book and have won a bid­ding war on eBay over a vin­tage lamp I nev­er want­ed in the first place.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

I hope read­ers get swept up in the sto­ries the way I’ve got­ten swept up in so many books. I’ve missed my bus stop any num­ber of times because I was so wrapped up in what I was read­ing, and felt dis­ori­ent­ed when I had to put the book away and was no longer in the world of my characters.

Mol­ly Antopol’s debut sto­ry col­lec­tion, The UnAmer­i­cans, was pub­lished here by W.W. Nor­ton in 2014, and in six oth­er coun­tries. She teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, where she was a recent Wal­lace Steg­n­er Fel­low. A recip­i­ent of the Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion’s 5 Under 35 award and longlist­ed for the Nation­al Book Award, she holds an MFA from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in San Francisco.

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